Four of MostlyFilm’s writers settle in for a night (or more) of Slow TV, the latest Scandinavian fad to hit the UK after hygge, fika and hot autistic detectives.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the annual ritual of people bitching over how poor the TV schedules look, as if anyone watches TV as it’s broadcast any more. And if one thing this year was guaranteed to draw flak from the usual quarters, it would be BBC Four’s announcement that they’d be dedicating an hour of airtime to a real-time journey on the Flying Scotsman. The reaction to this news was the inevitable mixture of confusion and anger, but those of us who subscribe to Netflix could only think one thing: lightweights.
Norway’s national broadcaster NRK has been doing this sort of thing for years, in a series of extended, glacially-paced programmes broadcast under the umbrella title of Slow TV. For those of us living outside Norway, these programmes have been the stuff of legend: but recently, Netflix acquired the international rights to several of them, and they’re all now available for your streaming pleasure. What’s it like to spend several hours watching a train journey, a canal cruise or some burning wood, you might ask? Well, that’s why we’re here.
Ricky Young on Train Ride Bergen to Oslo
Europe’s Best Website has referenced Slow TV before, with Sigur Ros’ hypnotic 24-hour trip around Iceland’s Route One, but today I’m talking about the event that really kicked off the trend, the Bergen To Oslo train-journey. Something, if you so chose, you could add to the long, slow march to the grave you currently face.
Which is apt, because this is sick-person’s TV – not in the sense of perverse (although it is that, a little bit – try telling a loved-one that you’re going to watch it, and their face will be exactly the same as if you’d said you fancied an evening of nonce-bashing with Eric Bristow) but it’s the perfect thing to wallow in if stuck indoors, ill on the sofa.
First broadcast in 2009 on Norwegian state telly, it was part of the 100th birthday celebrations of the line (don’t tell me Norway doesn’t know how to party), and in its present Netflix form is simply a camera at the front of the train as it travels the 231 miles between the country’s two largest cities.
Now, I first watched this while ill as shit with the flu, the choice being made because a) I like trains and b) the seven-hour running time meant I didn’t have to move a single aching muscle. And as we set off from Bergen out into the sun, all was calm and sedate and I was prepared to be interested in the – let’s face it – spectacular scenery. But the slowly chugging track noise, the occasional ‘clung!’ of a bell as we approach each of the thirty-nine stations with their Ikea-catalogue-flavoured names, the muffled burble of passengers and the inevitable plunging into mountain-spanning tunnels soon mixed together into a sort of half-lucid loop of hypnotic semi-wakefulness. As minutes and hours became fluid concepts in themselves, it felt a bit like falling into the TARDIS’ time-vortex, only more beautiful and with less having to stop and fight monsters all the while.
Now I’m not saying this is only to be watched when in the grip of winter’s fiercest viruses – it’s ridiculously pretty and there’s a geeky appeal to pretty much all of it. But if over the holidays you’re feeling peaky or low or just want to escape from Uncle Colin being kind of a racist bell-end, you can get under a blanket and drift off sedately towards Oslo, spirited away on a wonderful winter journey without going anywhere at all.
There are 182 tunnels. You will get some sleep.
Spank The Monkey on The Telemark Canal
Be honest. When you first heard about Slow TV, you probably thought it was just a cheap way to fill up airtime. Strap a camera onto a train, drive it though some nice scenery, broadcast the results. It’s possible that NRK felt guilty about how easy these programmes were to make: so in 2012, three years after the Bergen-Oslo show, they produced one that was ridiculously complex.
The Telemark Canal is the longest of the Slow TV shows currently available on Netflix. It follows the MS Victoria as it slowly meanders down the canal, starting off in Skien and finishing off in Dalen some 105 kilometres away and eleven and a half hours later. Compared with the purity of the Bergen-Oslo run, this has every production gimmick in the book thrown at it: on-screen presenters, multiple cameras, documentary inserts, a song soundtrack and interviews with both passengers and crew. And they broadcast it all live, because it wasn’t enough of a technical nightmare already.
In effect, it’s more of a conventional documentary, but with a relaxed attitude to editing and a casual acceptance of the concept of dead air. And you do find yourself wondering if they could have got away with the single-camera, one-take approach. After all, this is a canal journey, so it’s got built-in spectacle thanks to the multiple locks that need to be negotiated. The locks break up the action like songs in a musical, and you find yourself eagerly awaiting the next one: the show-stopper is at Vrangfoss, a five-chamber behemoth that raises the Victoria an astonishing 23 metres.
Still, even with all the fripperies added, large amounts of the programme amount to just a camera looking at the view dead ahead, or at the spectators off to the canalside. There are a huge number of spectators, all waving Norwegian flags and/or performing turns for the cameras. I suspect the ratings for the live broadcast were low, because it looks like every living Norwegian appears in shot at some point during the journey.
At the end of it all, the mayor of Dalen rolls up to greet the arrival of the Victoria and congratulate the presenters on their work: “I haven’t seen it all, but much of it…” This seems like a sensible approach to me. Clamping yourself to the TV for eleven and a half straight hours seems like a sure way to lose your marbles: but it’s a lovely show to dip in and out of over several days like a book, or use as audio-visual wallpaper while you’re doing something else. (In my case, a marathon session of domestic financial document shredding.) It’s worth seeing all the way through to the end, as the character of both the landscape and the light changes gloriously as the hours roll by.
About two and three-quarter hours in, a gloomy-looking girl boards the boat, wearing a Norwegian t-shirt which according to the subtitles says “now we’re having a good time.” And guess what, she’s right.
Mr Moth on National Firewood Night
The world is a chilly place right now. You turn on the TV and it’s either the end of the world or The X-Factor. Go on the internet and it’s either the end of the world or talking about The X-Factor and you can’t even watch porn any more. Go outside and it’s freezing, until the end of the world when we all burn. So why not watch something else burn instead?
Enter: Norway, who have provided us with 12 hours of firewood-based entertainment. I guess there are worse things to do than spend half a day in the company of some wood and/or woodcutters. And/or everything else Norway thinks might go with wood cutting and/or burning, which is in all honesty quite a lot of things. I guess Norway really loves wood? There’s even a Beatles song about it, even, and yes that does turn up during National Firewood Night. Talk about cliché!
My problem with this whole caper – if 12 hours of television, three quarters of which is literally just a single uninterrupted shot of a log fire, can truly be given the light-footed label of “caper” – is that it’s a bit too eventful. Once the wood is chopped (in a long sequence, “National Firewood Evening”, with the outdoorsy atmosphere of an extended episode of Winterwatch), you’d think the activity would cease and you might be left alone to meditate over the calm pop and crackle of a real log fire. Sadly, that does not happen.
Instead, one is treated to a selection of fireside amusements, from poetry to interviews and, at one point, a raucous blues track called Chainsaw Blues. Yes, uh, very relaxing. I get that perhaps they felt footage of a burning log fire would be a hard sell come budget day at whatever Norwegian TV network set this up. I get that it would just look like a screensaver without something to mark it out as entertainment. I get that there’s more going on here than just burning a fire – that it’s an evening by the fire, not just with the fire. But this is too much, they’ve fucked it. Charitably, there may be a language barrier. If I didn’t have to concentrate on reading subtitles maybe the chat, the songs, the poems, would wash over me more. They would be background to an evening, not work. As it is, twelve hours of National Firewood Evening, Night and Morning left me feeling distinctly cold.
Jake on Northern Passage
Slartibartfast: Oh, yes. Did you ever go to a place – I think it was called Norway?
Arthur Dent: No. No, I didn’t.
Slartibartfast: Pity. That was one of mine. Won an award, you know. Lovely crinkly edges.
The minimal research I’d undertaken, prior to preparing my hygge viewing environment, led me to believe that this was six full days of real-time footage, i.e. 144 hours of fjords. (Definition: A long, narrow, deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, as in Norway, typically formed by submergence of a glaciated valley) So I was a little disappointed to discover that the Netflix version is condensed down to less than an hour. My unwarranted investment in the appropriate amount of tealights has resulted in a new seller account on eBay.
Northern Passage follows the progress of the Nordnorge cruise ship along the coast of Norway. The ship, part of the delightfully named Hurtigruten fleet, takes passengers on a leisurely and luxurious trip, stopping at over 30 ports and covering over 1,000 miles each way (some passengers opt for the full 12-day there-and-back-again experience).
It starts off as travel documentary, circa 1980, with dated ‘screen within a screen’ effects reminiscent of shoddy corporate training videos. The narrator informs us that the programme became a national phenomenon, with crowds of Norwegians turning out at each port, riding unicycles and firing cannons, and millions watching for the duration of the initial broadcast.
Thankfully the breathtaking scenery and the hugely affectionate response from the locals won me over, and I watched with a huge smile on my face. One scene in particular was joyous, as Grieg’s Peer Gynt plays over images of the Seven Sisters waterfalls; all cynicism was washed away. Further along the coast, the soundtrack switches to easy-listening jazz, but as the camera pulls out, it becomes clear that this is diegetic, with a Norwegian Kenny G blowing his horn into the Nordnorge’s PA system. As the ship pulls into the next port, jazz fans have amassed for a local music festival, and Kënny receives rapturous applause.
The overwhelming national pride is partly a result of the Hurtigruten fleet being the Norwegian equivalent of UPS, delivering letters to loved ones across otherwise impassable terrain. Express delivery being reduced to days instead of months, reflecting the enviable pace of life and the cultural refusal to respond to emails outside of the 7.5-hour working day.
Many passengers join the cruise for the country’s legendary midnight sun, where there is no sunset whatsoever. Nobel prize-winning writer Knut Hamsun remarked: “Night was coming on again; the sun just dipped into the sea and rose again, red, refreshed, as if it had been down to drink. I could feel more strangely on those nights than anyone would believe”. I’m booking my ticket now.
I’d expected Slow TV © to be soporific and banal, but Northern Passage proved to be enlightening, engaging and uplifting. The only thing missing was Alan Whicker.
Currently, ten Slow TV programmes are available for streaming on Netflix. Don’t be confused by Slow West, though, that’s a different thing altogether.